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The Governor of Pennsylvania decided to use his perceived electoral mandate to take on one of the biggest issues that has confronted and confounded the commonwealth for decades: property tax reform. So he advanced a plan that would raise sales and personal income taxes in exchange for a cut in property taxes.
Sound familiar? The year was 1989 and the Governor was Robert P. Casey whose tax reform plan was put on a statewide ballot referendum and was soundly defeated by voters. Fast forward to 2015 and Governor Tom Wolf has placed on the table a property tax reform plan that strongly resembles the doomed Casey proposal. Except the Wolf plan doesn’t even include the dollar for dollar reductions required of the Casey effort.
As despised as property taxes are, and polling consistently finds the levy to be the most disliked, finding an acceptable alternative remains elusive. The Wolf plan appears to have little support in the General Assembly; in fact House Republicans have passed their own proposal. But it too fails to totally eliminate school property taxes leaving the door open for millage rates to simply increase again over time.
An indication of how unpopular the Wolf tax reform plan is can be found in the recent Keystone Business Climate Survey of business owners and chief executive officers conducted by the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research. Nearly 70% of the business leaders said the Wolf property tax shift would result in only a temporary drop in property taxes which would then go back up. Another 14% predicted his plan would actually lead to property tax increases; only 15% expect to see property taxes decline under the Wolf proposal.
Not only does the poll demonstrate disapproval of the Wolf property tax plan, but the survey found the biggest six month decline in business climate optimism since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. In fact, in the 20 year history of the poll only during that recession and in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks has business climate optimism dropped so far so fast.
Last September, for the first time since George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, more business leaders said the state’s economic climate had improved that felt it had gotten worse. The indicator rose into positive territory by just 1%, but it capped a steady move in a positive direction. All of that has changed. The number of owners/CEOs saying business conditions have improved over the past six months has fallen to just 13%, while the number saying business conditions have gotten worse has nearly doubled since last Fall.
The only variable to change during that six month period was the election of Governor Tom Wolf. Governor Tom Corbett left office with a 52% job approval rating. Governor Tom Wolf’s first job approval test yielded just 15% approval with 69% of the state’s business leaders saying they disapprove of the job he is doing.
Driving the dour mood among the people who actually run businesses – big and small – is a general disapproval of Governor Wolf’s budget proposals. A total of 78% disapprove of his proposed budget. Overall 80% say the governor’s proposed state budget will harm the state’s business climate. As a side note, Pennsylvania’s high tax rates and stringent regulatory policies are viewed by the owners/CEOs as the biggest impediments to conducting business in the commonwealth. They now fear that situation is about to get even worse so the state’s job creators are bracing themselves for higher taxes.
Overall the survey results represent a sound and complete repudiation of Governor Tom Wolf’s first proposed state budget along with the major revisions and tax hikes contained within the proposal. Like Governor Casey before him, his ambitious tax reform plans are deeply unpopular and may be destined for the same fate.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org)
Permission to reprint is granted provide author and affiliation are cited.
There is an old saying in political circles that “perception is reality.” Like many old saws there is a lot of truth behind that saying. Perception is driven by messaging. It is not necessarily the best policy that prevails, but the policy that benefits from the most effective messaging. And effective messaging depends on sound arguments, superior strategy and a capable messenger.
Democrats and the GOP have arrived at a split decision when it comes to effective messaging in political campaigns. Republicans have decimated Democrats at the legislative level. In congress the GOP holds solid majorities in both chambers. In the state legislature Republican majorities are at or near historic levels. The executive branch is a different story. President Obama’s oratorical skills have laid waste to hapless GOP nominees. Former Governor Tom Corbett was never able to effectively explain his policies to voters, paving the way for a Democratic victory.
Elections behind us, the task now turns to governing. This is where the outcome of the messaging battle becomes more one-sided. Congressional Republican leaders have been totally ineffective. They have squandered their numeric majority by being strategically out-maneuvered, and are losing the perception war.
Despite the fact President Obama’s executive orders relative to illegal immigrants were ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, and polls showing public opposition to his actions, the Republican congressional majority was unsuccessful in defunding the agencies tasked with implementing that policy. Why? They allowed Democrats to spin the defunding as a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security. In fact only a couple of small agencies within the DHS would have been affected. Thus the debate changed from illegal immigration to national security. Congressional Republicans were backed into a corner, caved in, and gave the President a victory.
Now unfolding is a fight over the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as U.S. Attorney General. Republicans have legitimate concerns relative to her interpretation of the constitution. But, they have allowed Democrats to portray their opposition as sexist, or racist by opposing the confirmation of an African-American woman. It was entirely predictable Democrats would play the race and “war on women” cards, but the GOP was unprepared to counter that message. In the end, a woman who believes the President can effectively re-write the U.S. Constitution will likely be confirmed as Attorney General.
Here in Penn’s Woods the GOP has historically been equally inept at countering executive messaging. Former Governor Ed Rendell was a master at backing legislative Republicans into a corner, picking off a couple of stragglers at the back of the herd, and winning enough votes for his budgets and policies.
Now, however, there is a new cast of characters in Harrisburg. Governor Tom Wolf has opted to follow the Obama model and tack far to the Left in his first budget proposal. New leadership is at the helm of both the House and Senate GOP and they represent caucuses far more conservative than those in office during the Rendell years.
Democrats have already begun spinning their message. Rick Bloomingdale, president of the state AFL-CIO penned an op-ed calling Governor Wolf’s new budget progressive, conjuring up images of John Fitzgerald Kennedy daring us to be great. This despite the fact working families will pay significantly higher taxes under Wolf’s budget proposals which amount to nothing either new or progressive, but are little more than a continuation of Rendell-era tax and spend policies.
The ball is now in the GOP’s court. Republican legislative leaders must shed the yoke of the Corbett Administration’s failure to communicate and become effective advocates for a more responsible approach to governing. Republicans have proposals that are time-tested, proven governing policies. The challenge now is to effectively communicate that message and to stand strong against a governor – and mainstream news media – determined to spin false perception into reality.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)
Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.